Bill Whitaker: Beto, Trump not out for the count

Gun Rights

As the 2022 midterm smoke clears, two big losers loom before Texans: Democratic icon Beto O’Rourke, who mistakenly assumed the tragic loss of life in a dead-of-winter state-run power grid collapse and state and local law enforcement incompetence and cowardice in a school shooting massacre would matter to everyday Texans, and Republican icon Donald Trump, who foolishly bet his sacred brand on cartoonish candidates across America too crazy for even some latter-day Republicans.

Yet don’t count either out forever. Resilience defines both, as different as they are in many other ways. Only seven days after midterms that left stalemate in Washington and a triumphant and confident right-wing state of affairs in Texas, Trump was already testing his political mettle in a third declared run for president, undertaken “to make America great and glorious again.”

Republicans are understandably gloating in their victory over O’Rourke, whose blend of boyish charisma, book-reading smarts, man-of-the-people oratory and narrow loss to tea-party Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 left the Republican Party of Texas more frightened of him than any statewide Democratic candidate I’ve seen in 46 years of Texas journalism. This time, though, he lost by a decisive 11 points to Gov. Greg Abbott — and three years after a quixotic run for president that was over almost as soon as it began.

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O’Rourke was up against Texans’ John Waynesque perceptions about themselves and their state, a former republic so fearful of Mexico that it pressed to be annexed by the United States. A white, 62-year-old rural voter on Election Day volunteered to me that he just wanted Texas to “stay the way it was” — and that O’Rourke’s talk of confiscating high-powered weaponry after the 2019 racist slaughter targeting Hispanics in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso was sufficient to dismiss Beto from consideration.

My acquaintance also felt obligated to note there were “a lot of Mexicans” in his own family.

And he wasn’t “a gun nut or anything,” he assured me, but simply reveled in his collection of firearms. He even set up a gun range on his property outside Waco to better enjoy the sport of marksmanship and to bolster his self-defense capabilities. He acknowledged, too, that he had twice accidentally shot himself, once during an encounter with a large rat. The latter emerged from the confrontation unscathed; my acquaintance did not. He described for me the excruciatingly burning pain of a fresh bullet wound.

I well recall O’Rourke’s unguarded call for confiscation of semi-automatic weapons in his presidential run and wondered if this spoiled further prospects for statewide office. Then again, those for whom this idea was a bridge too far were never going to support him anyway. At an Aug. 6 East Waco rally O’Rourke even acknowledged the impossibility of such a ban but implored Texans to at least consider common-sense alternatives such as red-flag laws with constitutional due process protections locked in.

“Listen, we may not each be able to get our ideal or our version of perfect, but we can agree on things like a universal background check or a red-flag law or raising the minimum age to purchase from 18 to 21 for an assault weapon,” he said. “That would save so many lives. That would give our kids — and I’m talking about your kids, our kids — some confidence that we actually care about their lives more than we care about the profits of the gun industry or the NRA or the special interests or the status quo we have today.”

The madding crowd

O’Rourke’s humbling defeat also proves what delusional Trump supporters failed to grasp in 2020 and since, to the point some of the latter rioted against democracy itself on Jan. 6, 2021: Drawing big, excitable crowds to rallies does not necessarily translate into actual votes. For whatever reason, many registered Texas voters — reportedly 9.6 million of them — sat out the fall 2022 midterm elections. To his credit, O’Rourke hasn’t claimed election fraud in his loss or incited supporters to post-election violence.

Trump’s dashed role as Republican kingmaker in 2022 can be blamed on at least two factors — the fact some Republicans are growing weary of his self-serving rants on how election victory was unfairly snatched from him in his 2020 reelection bid; second, his choosing to campaign for a bunch of screwball election deniers, societal misfits and out-and-out liars who believed aping Donald Trump was the key to election victory in 21st-century America.

A Republican friend of mine who voted for Trump twice echoed what party elites reportedly whisper in fear, lest they provoke the iconoclastic narcissist-in-waiting and his more adoring disciples: The party would fare better in the future if Trump were in the party’s rear-view mirror. No less than the New York Post, a normally reliable supporter of the reality TV show president, issued a Nov. 11 edition with this headline: “Trump voters are ‘done’ with ex-president: ‘He needs to disappear.’”

And when Trump announced this month, the Post pointedly consigned the story to Page 26 along with the headline: “Been there, Don that.”

Even in Texas the evidence is handy: A Nov. 12-13 CWS Research poll commissioned by the Republican Party of Texas found Texas Republican voters preferred Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to Trump as the 2024 presidential nominee by 11 points. That’s a big, fat, red-faced 180-degree turn from an Oct. 19-23 poll — conducted just before the 2022 elections by, again, CWS Research — that found Texas Republican voters preferred Trump as the 2024 nominee over DeSantis by 17 points. Post-midterm change of heart?

The realization is growing: Trump, 76, is a loose cannon. After seeing many of his endorsed candidates falter on Nov. 8 (well, except in Texas where statewide Republican candidates would have prevailed anyway), Trump — clearly smarting and seeking to marginalize the man he sees as a threat to his 2024 Republican re-nomination — promptly claimed on social media that in 2018 he deployed the FBI and Department of Justice to halt vote-counting in Florida so DeSantis could squeak out a win as governor.

Unfortunately, having licked Trump’s boots for so long amidst his assaults on everything from civility to constitutional principles, many of today’s Republican leaders may find cutting ties hard to do. Sustained courage and smarts are required. And Trump’s not stupid. He knows his most fanatically loyal supporters are low-information voters, easy to con, easy to rouse. He knows that unprincipled politicians will always cravenly follow the mob. With his 2024 presidential campaign now announced, he isn’t going quietly.

Midterms - Whitaker 2

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who dismissed vilification and stressed solutions and almost Reaganesque optimism during his statewide campaign regarding power grid failures and voter suppression, told Waco voters: “Our kids are watching us. They’re watching us today and I guarantee you they’ll be watching us from the future. Imagine the textbooks written decades from today (about) the people of 2022 who faced these existential challenges.”

As for O’Rourke, a social-media meme of late shows the lanky Texan outfitted in Walmart greeter duds, suggesting has-been status after three election losses. But at age 50, he may just need further seasoning, a change in strategy (including realization that massive outreach to rural Texas these days nets a Democrat little), further shifts in demographics and a population that demands accountability when, say, Texans freeze to death in the nation’s energy mecca or Texas children are shot to bits and pieces.

Incoherent, inconvenient

And the big issues of 2022? It’s hard to believe people are obsessed with inflation and gas prices (lately below $3 a gallon) when one regularly sees motorists in gas-guzzlers idling at length in H-E-B parking lot aisles just so they can park near the store entrance. And no less than the conservative The Economist partially credits inflation to a savvy post-pandemic workforce that recognizes its value and demands better jobs, better pay, better benefits. That’s not socialism but pure, unadulterated capitalism at work.

And, yes, democracy is perhaps an esoteric concept difficult for some of us far removed from the founding generation to understand and appreciate, but enough 2022 voters still had qualms (at least beyond Texas) about trusting candidates who talked and acted crazy.

Texas Tribune research suggests that Republicans pouncing on President Biden’s incoherent immigration policies brought their voters to the polls in ways abortion, gun restrictions, voter suppression and power grid failures didn’t for Democrats. Evidence of this surfaced at the McLennan County Republican Party’s rousing border security rally with popular KXXV-TV news personality Ann Harder serving as mistress of ceremonies over fiery political addresses delivered in the incendiary style of Donald Trump.

During the Sept. 24 “Secure Our Border” rally, McLennan County Sheriff’s Detective Joe Scaramucci told the small but enthusiastic crowd that border crossings had exploded statistically the past two years and that voters “need to put Republicans back in the White House” to deter rampant crimes committed by illegal immigrants: “What we have coming across the border are people that are coming and exploiting our children, exploiting our women, murdering people and engaging in human trafficking.”

Yet many fail to recognize the incoherence in billions of taxpayer dollars plowed by Abbott and the Republican-led Texas Legislature into Operation Lone Star, a program to deter illegal immigration in ways federal authorities have failed to do. A Sept. 28 Texas Tribune analysis found “the number of migrants officials encounter at the Texas-Mexico border is higher today than it was before Operation Lone Star began.” This politically inconvenient info comes from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It will be interesting to see how Republican lawmakers in a divided Congress approach the issues touted during their campaigns such as the economy and immigration. One of the first Republican press meetings saw QAnon conspiracy-monger Marjorie Taylor Greene, elevated to power by Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, vow to lead the Republican Party’s Putin wing in the fight against U.S. funding for Ukraine. So much for bold talk of liberty and freedom. Where’s Joe McCarthy when you really need him?

A politically astute and crestfallen Democratic friend of mine marveled that, with the Uvalde school massacre, death-dealing state power grid collapse and pushback on banning abortion rights on the Texas ballot, so few Texans could be bothered to vote. Surveys may reveal the reason, but it likely involves the fact many people are discouraged by increased difficulties in voting and abuses such as gerrymandering, the latter of which only increases political extremism and irresponsible governance.

The great divide

A friend who has toiled long and hard as a Trump activist cavalierly insisted Democrats would echo the cry of “election fraud” after their own 2022 election losses. He assumed a “red wave” nationwide would prompt such whining to jump from one party to the other. Instead, the Republicans are whining again. Ideologues such as former Trump adviser Stephen Miller question early voting and propose hiking the voting age from 18 to 21. Trump continues to target mail-in balloting.

One solution might be voters investing more time and thought in their right to vote. In conversations during and after the midterms, McLennan County Elections Office staffers informed me that some voters were upset to learn they couldn’t vote in McLennan County because they hadn’t actually registered to vote when they moved here from another county or state. The morning after Election Day two staffers told me that they dreamed overnight about repeatedly checking voter names against registration rolls.

Ironically, some Republican hopefuls collided with their party’s sustained efforts at voter suppression. Arizona’s defeated gubernatorial candidate, resolute election denier Kari Lake, is crying foul because some of her supporters discovered on Election Day that they weren’t properly registered to vote and couldn’t promptly remedy matters. Why? Same-day voter registration had been forbidden by Republican state legislators in Arizona (and on a party line vote). Oops.

A diehard Republican neighbor suggests 2022 national election returns suggest voters aren’t happy with either party. Closer to the truth: Americans are evenly and passionately divided in ways we haven’t seen in our lives, even with the civil strife of the late 1960s and early ’70s. And the path forward is dark unless we embrace 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s suggestion we build consensus and mutual respect into public service rather than year-round, burn-it-all-down Machiavellian politicking.

“Two roads diverge before this potential GOP majority,” Romney said in a Nov. 10 Wall Street Journal op-ed when Republicans still appeared likely to control both houses of Congress. “The one ‘less travelled by’ would be to pass bills that would make things better for the American people. The more tempting and historically more frequented road would be to pursue pointless investigations, messaging bills, threats and government shutdowns. The road we choose could make all the difference.”

Even though Sen. Romney is an outlier in his party for voting to impeach Trump for trying to overthrow the 2020 presidential election through skullduggery and violence, his advice is solid. And if the issues themselves are too complicated for the ordinary citizen to grasp, an easy way to gauge a lawmaker’s worth, in state or federal governance, is to learn if your representative or senator has filed a bill with someone on the other side of the aisle to address some significant problem of our times.

And I’m not talking about legislation to name a post office after somebody or to create another state or federal holiday most of us can’t observe anyway. Far more is required of our political leaders today — and us. Failing in this critical regard may leave all of us losers.

What a Trump 2024 presidential run means for the GOP and Biden: Karoun Demirjian, national security correspondent with the Washington Post, and Kelly Jane Torrance, op-ed editor for the New York Post, break down the implications of Donald Trump’s announcement that he’s running for the U.S. presidency (again) in 2024.

Bill Whitaker spent more than 45 years as a reporter, editor and columnist in daily Texas journalism, including a dozen years as Waco Tribune-Herald opinion editor. He is a member of the Tribune-Herald Board of Contributors.

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